I Am One Lucky Atheist: On Location and Belief

I Am One Lucky Atheist: On Location and Belief March 11, 2013

I am a graduate student in a humanities field, living in a progressive college town. Because of this, not believing in God doesn’t cause me any trouble at all in my day to day life. No one cares. No really, no one cares. The people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are atheist, agnostic, “spiritual,” or, less commonly, some form of progressive Christian.

There are the mothers of Sally’s daycare friends that I’ve gotten to know: One is lapsed Catholic who is now agnostic, another is a woman who also attends my local UU congregation, and a third attends an LGBTQ-friendly, atheist-friendly United Methodist church (which apparently, here, is a thing). There are the other graduate students in my department: A lifelong atheist, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, an evangelical Christian who believes in gender equality and spends her time hanging out with atheists. And on it goes.

In fact, it’s such that when religion comes up, I’m actually surprised if I learn the person I’m talking to is religious. Spiritual, sure, but religious? Odds are they’re not. And if they are, they’re almost certain to be progressive Christians who aren’t going to give you trouble for not believing. I’m on a local mom’s group on facebook, and a recent request for suggestions in how to deal with children and religious relatives brought a thread of helpful advice, and not a single condemnation. And besides, religion doesn’t usually come up anyway. I don’t know what my adviser believes about God, or most of my colleagues at work. I know they’re politically progressive, but religion isn’t something people just bring up.

So when I read blogs by atheists who feel discriminated against in their daily lives, well, it sounds rather foreign. Once in a while, once in a long while, I’ll get a small taste of what they’re talking about. For example, I was talking to another mom during the class Sally takes at the Y, and for some reason religion came up. I don’t even remember how. I let on that I don’t believe in God, and her demeanor suddenly changed. She suddenly acted like there was something wrong with me. It was weird, because that’s something I’m so unused to encountering. So while I understand what atheists in places like the Bible belt are talking about, it’s something I almost never actually experience myself.

Now I suppose you’re wondering. But Libby, you’re thinking, didn’t you grow up an evangelical Christian? What about your family, and your friends from when you were evangelical? Thing is, I don’t live near any of them. Further, the only members of my family that I’m out as an atheist too are the few that have walked my same path. The others still assume I’m Christian, though a progressive (read: heretical) form of Christian, and we pretty much have our own little don’t ask, don’t tell policy. As for the people I grew up with, I lost contact with them when my entire background exploded in my face while I was in college. I was changing, and I knew they wouldn’t be understanding. It was just easier, given that it was at a transitional time in my life anyway, and living away from home at college, to let it all go. So I did.

But what I find interesting here is just how profoundly exactly where you live and what circles you float in influences the experience of an atheist living in the United States. Most of the atheists I encounter here don’t really give a second thought to their atheism—because they don’t have to. There’s no shared sense of being discriminated against to bond over. There’s simply lack of belief, and a lack of belief that really doesn’t impact one’s daily life. Surrounded by other academics and the hippie types that flock to progressive college downs like this, someone who doesn’t believe in God doesn’t stand out. In fact, it’s rather the other way around.

How about you? What do your experiences have to add to this conversation?

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